Revisionism, Israel, and other dirty words

In this week’s New Yorker, the e-i-c David Remnick, writes an important book review of, mainly, Israeli historian Tom Segev’s new book “1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East.”

It’s important, first, because it re-claims the word “revision” from the dirt with which it’s been dredged in recent years. He writes: “In June, 2003, President Bush tried to discredit any critics who dared dispute his artfully twisted intelligence assessments of Iraq by slinging the worst name he could think of: ‘Revisionist historians is what I like to call them.'”

That’s all wrong, Remnick says — and I agree — since the historian’s task is to constantly revise things, to look at old events anew. If it wasn’t, historians today would be in the breadlines. But, of course, that isn’t to say that historians simply upend established historical narratives simply because they’re old; they do it because they could perhaps be better understood in light of present realities or new modes of thinking.

But that’s enough meta-history. The meat-and-potatoes of Remnick’s review — and, rest assured, there will be many, many more about Segev’s new book in the coming weeks — concerns Segev’s thesis that the critical Israeli-Arab war of 1967 could have been avoided. Israel did not pre-emptively strike Syria, Egypt, Jordan, et al. because they were, in reality, facing imminent destruction by those countries, but “for the mistakes, miscommunications, random events, and lethal vanities on both sides.”

To be sure, Segev isn’t the first to paint a more complex, and less apocalyptic view, of the days and months leading up to the ’67 war — the center-right and highly respected historian Michael Oren said as much in his recent book on the war — but Segev is certainly the most daring. Perhaps, Remnick accepts, to a fault: “Segev, by design, ignores the Arab political situation and seems reluctant to credit the Israelis with a legitimate sense of threat.”

Conversely, Oren’s “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” published in 2003, also has its flaws. “Oren, a more versatile scholar, has taken great pains to read whatever Arab sources are available (most archives are closed) and is more at home with big power politics, but he tends to scant the negative aspects of victory and conquest.”

Ultimately, though, the causes of war are no less important than its aftermath. And, for a more complete understanding of the ’67 war, Remnick writes, we must look to liberal journalist Gershom Gorenborg’s new-ish book “The Accidental Empire,” which posits a damning assessment of Israel’s post-’67 war settlements. Put side-by-side with Segev’s “1967,” it’s clear that the prophetic rhetoric coming out of Israeli politicians’ and journalists’ pens and mouths made the current problem of the occupied territories inevitable.

Remnick writes that “those early days of postwar euphoria, there were a few prominent Israelis who dared to warn of the moral and political degradation that would come with the occupation.” And with it, “a new kind of Zionist, one that fused faith and nationalism, replaced the old pioneers, the kibbutzniks. … With time, the settlements became a matter of literal concrete facts; flimsy outposts were transformed into suburban bedroom communities with government subsidies and short commutes to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

Today, Israel continues to wrestle with what to do about those “concrete facts” — the settlements. Even their one-time champion, Ariel Sharon, balked at their necessity when he began dismantling them in 2005 in Gaza. But, critics of the settlements shouldn’t have utopian dreams. If Israel ever disengages from the West Bank, where the overwhelming majority of the settlements remain (with about 250,000 settlers) — not to mention annexed east Jerusalem, where another 180,000 Israelis now live — they won’t do so completely. Not as long as the Palestinians don’t learn to control their own.

Remnicks concludes: “At the moment, Palestinian support for a two-state solution has plummeted, and the settler movement is, once more, the strongest lobby in the country.”

“The war of 1967 casts a shadow still.” And it’s lesson: “the only thing worse than a great victory is a great defeat.”

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